Family Leave Proposals Get Hearing in Washington Senate

Jan 30, 2017

A Washington state Senate committee heard testimony Monday on competing family leave bills.

A Washington state Senate committee on Monday heard testimony on competing family medical leave bills. One proposal would be funded through employee premiums, the other would be paid for through a combination of employee and employer contributions.

Seattle Democratic Senator Karen Keiser’s bill would provide 26 weeks of leave for several types of situations, including maternity leave, a family member’s serious health issue or something military-related. That would begin in October 2019. Then the next year it would add a provision, allowing people to take 12 weeks to take care of their own health.

The bill proposed by Auburn Republican Senator Joe Fain would start with eight weeks of paid leave, beginning in 2020, working up to 12 weeks by 2023.

“The approach that I took in this legislation is more than I think just a modest step forward. It’s very much similar to some of the successful programs that we see operating in other states,” Fain said.

Fain’s bill would pay recipients up to half of the state’s average weekly wage, which is almost $1100. Kaiser’s bill is more generous and more expensive. It would allow recipients to draw up to $1000 a week, a percentage based on that person’s wage.

Fain’s proposal requires employees to pay the premiums. Kaiser’s bill is paid by employers who would be allowed to deduct up to half of the premiums.

In Monday’s testimony, working mothers and medical professionals, such as Dr. Edie Lang, supported Kaiser’s bill, especially for moms returning after childbirth.

“Far too many of the mothers I work with go back to work before they should, not because they want to, but because they have to," she said. "This despite the fact that doctors recommend at least 26 weeks of exclusive breastfeeding. We know the time for new parents to spend with their new baby means better health for the whole family.”

Business owners and groups say they generally support the idea of family leave and think its time has come. But they say any proposal has to consider the fact that the state minimum wage continues to increase and mandated sick leave will soon be on the books. Most of them would choose Fain’s bill.

For Dave Parker, the C-E-O of the tech company Codefellows, it comes down to the length of time companies would have to pay for employee leave.

“Because of the impact of the 26 weeks. It’s really just an economic decision of having to cover two things: the person while they’re gone as well as backfilling the positions while they’re there," Parker said. "It’s an impact question of magnitude, rather than a question of is it the right thing to do.”

The House is also considering a companion version of Senator Keiser’s bill, but it’s possible other versions will also be introduced.

Keiser says she’s pleased that lawmakers appear to be taking family leave seriously this year after so many swings and misses in the past.  

“I am thrilled to see consensus beginning to form that we can do so much better for working families who have a health crisis or a new baby and we can make this system a safe and secure and affordable program for all working families,” Keiser said.

Our thanks to TVW for the audio for this story.